Off the Edge of the Map
Only weeks had passed since the Great Congress of Lenfald, but Abner felt as though he had been propelled forward a century. He stood on the docks of Isil Oro, holding his wife, Serena, tight to his chest as he gazed out across the sparkling ocean ahead of him. So much had transpired in such a short time! He realized now that the brothers, Captain Gottfried and Lord Meyrick, had been grooming him since the Great Congress for this very task. In fact, it occurred to Abner that his selection to attend the congress was nothing more than a ruse to allow Lord Meyrick to size him up. Apparently the duke was impressed. It was not long after their return to Ainesford that Lord Meyrick had revealed his plans to Abner. Sorely Meyrick had a pirate problem that was interfering with his, ahem, totally legitimate maritime trade and he wanted it resolved. He had the right ship, now he just needed the right captain. That’s where Abner came in.
“Captain!” came the shout from further up the dock, snapping Abner’s mind back to the present. He loosened his hold on Serena and turned to face the man who had called him. He grinned as he saw who it was.
“Commander Scraff, good to see you this fine morning,” said Abner, extending a hand to the big marine striding towards him. The burly Scraff shook Abner’s hand with a crushing grip, then stepped back and looked at Serena.
“What do we have here?” said Scraff, amusement playing across his windswept face. “The captain here has been entirely too modest about you; you look lovely, Serena. Very pleased to finally meet you!” He shook Serena’s hand, taking care to be extremely gentle. Serena still winced in pain.
“Oh, you’re just trying your best there, aren’t you, sailor?” joked Serena. “But that handshake of yours will still crush the life out of any girl that falls for your rubbish!”
Scraff looked down sheepishly at his enormous palm. “I thought I did pretty well that time…”
Abner chuckled merrily. “You’ll learn, Scraff. Are your marines ready to sail?”
The commander gave Abner what he considered a nudge. “Are my marines ready to sail? Hah! We’ve been ready for weeks. Why, who wouldn’t be with that ship waiting for us?”
The three of them looked out across the bay to where a great ship floated upon the waters. Her four masts pierced the sky with the colors of Lenfald flapping proudly at their peaks. Her prow was sleek and high, her hull clearly meant for the open ocean and her stern ornately decorated.
“There she is,” came the voice of Lord Sorely Meyrick. “The Spirit of Lenfald, The greatest ship ever built. Brand new, and built to withstand a beating. Isn’t she beautiful?”
Abner glanced over at the duke. “Aye,” he said, “She’s magnificent. Though not as magnificent as my other lady,” he said slyly, causing Serena to smile up at him and clutch his hand tightly.
“Then let us allow you a moment with this other lady,” replied Lord Meyrick graciously. “Commander,” he said, nodding at Scraff, and the two men started off towards the boats that bobbed in the harbor below.
Abner turned back to Serena, but she did not meet his gaze. He could see tears beginning to well in the corners of her eyes.
“Serena,” he started. “Please, don’t cry for me, not now.”
She looked up into his face, the tears flowing freely now. Abner wiped them away. “I’m sorry,” she said, pressing herself once more into is chest. “I’m just so frightened. Frightened that,” she paused, “that you won’t come back.”
Abner gently raised her chin until Serena was looking into his eyes. “Serena,” he said softly, “I am not a sailor, but I am a warrior and I love you more than anything in this world. I swear to you, whatever it takes, I will come back. I will return to you no matter what. Do not worry for me, no matter how long I am gone, for we will find our way back to each other once again.”
Abner surprised himself with how certain he was, how resolute in his commitment to fulfill that promise without knowing what the seas had in store. Serena saw his sincerity and smiled through her tears.
“I believe you,” she whispered back to him, hugging him one last time. She grabbed his face and kissed him, then gave him a shove towards the boats. “Now go! Before I change my mind,” she said, drying her face and smiling.
“I love you!” she called after Abner as he walked purposefully towards the waiting boats. He turned one last time and called back, “I love you too!” then clambered into the boat beside Scraff, shook Lord Meyrick’s hand, and shoved off towards the Spirit of Lenfald.
Abner leaned heavily on the rail and stared vacantly out across the flat waters before him. The sea was unnaturally calm; not even a ripple disturbed its glasslike surface. The afternoon sun beat down mercilessly upon the deck, its sweltering heat aggravated by the all-too-apparent lack of wind. The sails hung slack without the slightest breeze to fill them. Only a couple of sailors could be seen on deck and even these hardy men took shelter in what little shade they could find.
Abner mopped the sweat from his brow. He had never known heat like this in Lenfald and there had always been a tree nearby to provide some shady relief from the sun’s blistering rays. The men had been stuck in these accursed doldrums for five days now, far from the safety of the shore, drifting aimlessly in the stagnant waters. Food stocks had been rationed from the start of the voyage and were holding steady, but the water supplies were growing dangerously low.
Abner thought of Serena, waiting faithfully for him in Isil Oro. He remembered his promise to her, how sure he had been about fulfilling it, and how she had taken him at his word. He regretted making the journey to Stonewald for the Great Congress, as important an event as it had been. He regretted spending so much time in Ainesford training soldiers to defend Lenfald from an invasion that likely would not come. Abner’s remorse manifested itself as self-loathing; he despised himself for not spending that time with Serena instead. He doubted that he would ever see her again and sorrow swelled within him as he pictured her standing on the docks of Isil Oro, eyes locked on the horizon, forever waiting for the Spirit of Lenfald to sail proudly into sight. That’s what Serena had told him she would do if he did not return in due time, and Abner believed her. She was a dedicated woman, there was no question about that.
Now, however, Abner also began to doubt whether he would live to see the dawn of a new day. He knew there was talk of mutiny amongst the men and he did not think they would wait long to execute their plan, even with Scraff holding them at bay. How quickly things change, Abner thought to himself.
The Spirit of Lenfald had sailed from Isil Oro with a crew of fifty-five sailors and marines, including Bram, the ship’s builder, and Toliver, the famous navigator. The voyage had been going so smoothly; they had found the pirate “fleet” in only a week, prowling the shipping lanes north of Morastius-Renu. The pirates were little more than a gang of thugs sailing around on a dilapidated cog and a slightly larger makeshift flagship. They fled at the first sight of the Spirit of Lenfald and were foolish enough to stick together. The Lenfels ran down the smaller ship and put their ballistae to good use, destroying the pathetic cog with flaming projectiles without even having to board.
The minor delay spent assaulting the ship allowed the flagship to gain ground out to sea, but the Spirit of Lenfald pursued. “Where are they running to?” Scraff had laughed, “They’re running scared, straight west into the open ocean. There’s nowhere for them to go!”
They were miles out to sea, farther than vessels normally dared to go, and no longer in sight of the shore. Toliver, the navigator, had warned that his charts did not extend much farther west and that the currents and winds would soon become unpredictable. Abner decided that their ship could run down the pirates long before that became a danger, and they seemed to be almost within striking distance as night fell. That was when the storm hit.
Dark clouds seemed to form out of nowhere, thunder rolled, and lightning lit up the night every couple of seconds. Rain poured down from the heavens and the wind began to blow so hard that the masts started to creak.
“CAPTAIN!” Bram, the ship’s engineer, had shouted, “We have to haul in the sails or this ship is going to rip itself apart!”
“But we’ll lose the pirates!” shouted Abner, “She can hold!”
“NO SHE CAN’T, MAN!” screamed Bram, grabbing Abner’s coat, “Trust me!”
Abner hesitated for a moment, then screamed out, “HAUL IN THE SAILS!” The crew scrambled to furl the sails, battling the driving rain and howling winds as they managed to haul in the massive sheets.
Abner squinted ahead at the pirate vessel, watching as it started to gain ground on them again. “See, they’re getting aw-“ he started, but Bram’s wisdom was soon affirmed as the mainmast of the other ship snapped at its base, crashing down onto the deck and tearing the foremast down with it. The ship must have been even more fragile than it appeared, as the hull ruptured unexpectedly and the whole vessel began to sink.
Scraff roared with laughter, drowning out even the sounds of the storm. “Serves you right, you foolish scum heaps!” he cackled, “Look at ‘em drown!”
Abner almost pitied the poor men floundering about helplessly in the waves, but even if he had wanted to help them, there was nothing he could have done in this storm. A much closer figure came into view, trudging towards him through the driving rain. Toliver hauled his way up the rail to where the other men stood near the stern of the ship.
“Cap’n!” yelled the navigator urgently, clutching his ridiculously stylish hat as the wind tried to wrench it from his grasp, “This storm has blown us way off course! I don’t have a clue where we are!”
Abner looked towards the sky, sheltering his face with his hand. “Don’t worry, Toliver, the stars will be back out as soon as this storm clear up. Or the sun will be up by then and you won’t have any trouble,” he said calmly.
Toliver looked uneasy. “Alright, Cap’n, but this worries me, not being able to tell where we are.”
The storm subsided after a few more long hours and the crew came back out on deck to assess the damage and get a head count. The Spirit of Lenfald had weathered the gale extraordinarily well, a fact for which everyone on board congratulated a beaming Bram the shipwright. Miraculously, not a soul had gone overboard and the only damage that had been done seemed to be superficial; caused by some water barrels breaking loose and crashing over the side before they could be tied down again.
Orders were issued to set sail and turn the ship back towards the east. That was when everyone realized that the air was completely still…
“Captain,” came Scraff’s voice, snapping Abner back to the present. Abner turned towards the marine’s voice, surprised to see him out on deck in this oppressive heat.
“Commander,” said Abner, “What brings you out on deck at this hour?”
“Unfortunately not good news,” replied Scraff gravely. “I can’t hold my marines back much longer. They feel you have led us all to our deaths and they want your head.”
Abner nodded, “Indeed, I have, and I understand their position,” he said softly.
Scraff shook his head. “Nay, ranger,” he reassured. “We all wanted to press forward and get at those pirates’ throats as much as you did. You are not a navy man and that makes you a good scapegoat. And you happen to be in the unfortunate position of commanding this vessel, which makes you the most hated man on board by default. But none of us could have prevented this if we were in your place.”
Abner considered Scraff’s words and opened his mouth to reply when he suddenly heard something strange. He looked at Scraff questioningly and saw the other man looking back at him. The hissing sound grew louder, and both men grinned with recognition. Scraff laughed heartily and Abner stood straight up as the air hit him, feeling its refreshing coolness around him. The sails billowed and the lines grew taught; waves began to form on the water’s surface and the Spirit of Lenfald began to plow forward once more.
The hatches were flung open and the crew poured back onto the deck, cheering and shouting. Scraff shook his head.
“You are one lucky dog, you know that Abner?” said the big marine, slapping him on the back and sending Abner stumbling forward. “But man am I glad you are.”
Toliver joined the men near the helm. “Aye, a lucky one you are, for now,” he said. “But this wind is still moving us west, and last I checked Lenfald wasn’t in that direction.”
Abner sighed. He knew Toliver was right; eventually they would have to plot a course north or south in hopes of finding a current or wind that could carry them back towards familiar shores. He leaned on the rail again and looked out across the waves, searching for an answer somewhere, anywhere. Something on the horizon caught his eye.
“Are you sure we’re sailing west?” he asked Toliver doubtfully.
“Of course I’m sure, “ snapped Toliver impatiently, “I’ve been a navigator my whole life. I think I know how to tell directions.”
“Then what is that?” asked Abner, raising an eyebrow.
“What is what?” replied Toliver, annoyed.
Abner pointed. “That, on the horizon. Off our port bow.”
Toliver squinted out across the waves. “I don’t see-“
“Son of a Loreesi…” interrupted Scraff.
“LAND!” shouted Abner excitedly, pointing. “I see Land!”
Every soul on board crowded the port rail, leaning out over the water to see if it was true. Sure enough, a distant shoreline faded into view.
“Still sure we’re heading west?” quipped Scraff.
Toliver’s brow was furrowed. “Aye,” he said quietly. “And that shoreline isn’t on any map made by a Lenfel, or any Roawian for that matter.”
“What are you saying, man?” asked Abner intently.
Toliver folded his chart carefully and stowed it in his pocket.
“We’re off the edge of the map, gentlemen.”